Fifty years of statistics at Penn State

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State’s Department of Statistics is celebrating its 50th anniversary this month. From humble beginnings in the 1960s, it has grown to become one of the leading centers in the world for research in statistical theory and applications. The department also educates thousands of students across the University — students in numerous other disciplines as well as its own majors — and is nationally recognized for statistics education, theoretical statistics research, and statistical approaches to solving problems in a large variety of scientific disciplines.

It is reasonable to ask what an academic statistics department does; after all, nearly everyone encounters statistics in their lives, and many people even take an introductory statistics course or two, but very few are ever immersed in the life of a research department like this one. The late John Tukey — a highly influential and colorful statistician, and the person who coined the terms “software” and “bit” — once said that the best thing about being a statistician is that you get to play in everyone’s backyard. His point was that statistics is highly interdisciplinary, and this is one of the aspects of the subject that attracts so many quantitatively minded scientists to the field.

Modern statistical research includes a liberal amount of philosophy, higher mathematics and sophisticated computing, and many statistics researchers foster long-time collaborations with scientists in other disciplines. In a nutshell, academic statisticians work on developing methods for designing experiments, then collecting and analyzing data. These methods often arise during the course of solving problems in other fields — for instance, astronomy problems led to much statistical work in the 19th century, whereas genetics and agriculture gave rise to a lot of early 20th century statistics. True to their forebears, many current Penn State statistics faculty members maintain close ties with researchers in other fields, from astronomy to zoology.

Beginnings

Like many of the top statistics departments in the United States, Penn State’s Department of Statistics was founded in the 1960s. Prior to that time, there had been interest in a statistical consulting service at Penn State and even a State College Chapter of the American Statistical Association; but it was not until 1966 that a statistics unit was created within the Department of Mathematics at Penn State.  

Then, in 1968, a separate Department of Statistics was founded with two visiting professors and seven full-time faculty members — including James Bartoo, former head of the mathematics department, at its helm — and offered between eight and eleven courses each term. In the years since, the department's educational impact has grown by leaps and bounds: By the fall of 2017, its faculty were teaching around 120 course sections to thousands of students across the University.

Departmental personnel over the years

Penn State’s Department of Statistics has included its share of famous statisticians and colorful characters among its faculty, alumni and visitors over the years. None is more famous than C.R. Rao — generally considered one of the most influential statisticians of all time — who was recruited to Penn State in 1988 by one of the original members of the department, Tom Hettmansperger, who was serving as department head at the time. Rao held Penn State’s Eberly Family Chair in Statistics until he retired in 2001.

As for colorful characters, none is more colorful than Bill Harkness. Harkness was one of the original members of the department, having joined Penn State’s faculty in 1959, and he served as department head from 1969 to 1987, the longest anyone has ever served in that role. After he retired in 2002, Harkness continued not only to teach introductory statistics but also to oversee a major effort that he had spearheaded just a few years before, to overhaul how it was taught. Nearly 60 years after arriving at Penn State, he still puts in regular appearances in the department he did so much to shape. Endowed funds in Harkness' name currently provide graduate students with awards for excellent teaching as well as reimbursement for their travel to conferences.

Jim Rosenberger was another long-serving department head — from 1991 to 2006, less a couple years spent as program director of statistics at the National Science Foundation. It was under Rosenberger's tenure that the department developed a master's program in applied statistics, followed by a certificate in applied statistics, and then offered both of these programs online. Rosenberger's push to develop the online versions of the necessary courses prior to securing the approval to officially offer these programs through Penn State’s World Campus proved prophetic, helping to position Penn State as a leader in online statistics education even in today’s crowded marketplace of web-based instruction.

Among the many world-class scholars who have spent time in the Statistics Department are the holders of the Eberly Family Chair in Statistics, endowed by generous benefactors of Penn State’s Eberly College of Science. Rao, the chair’s first holder, is — at 97 years of age — considered a living legend of statistics and one of the most influential researchers of the 20th century. He was a student of Sir Ronald Fisher, who is considered by many to be the father of modern statistics.

Although Rao was a tough act to follow, Bruce Lindsay was a worthy successor as the second Eberly Family Chair. Lindsay spent his entire 36-year career at Penn State, making many fundamental contributions to theoretical statistics and also applying these deep insights in a number of fields, including genetics, environmental science, and machine learning. The third and current holder of the Eberly Family Chair is Runze Li, one of the world’s best-known, up-and-coming statisticians, whose work has deep theoretical roots as well as myriad applications in a variety of fields.

Many Penn State statisticians have played a role in the computing revolution that has transformed the field of statistics, like so many other disciplines, over the past several decades. Among them are Penn State faculty members Tom Ryan, Barbara Ryan and Brian Joiner, who developed statistical software in the 1970s while they were still faculty in the department and would later found Minitab, Inc. Easily usable and widely applicable statistical software was rare at the time, and Minitab quickly became the leading software for educational and academic purposes. Today, Minitab software is widely used outside of academia, as well.

Playing in other people’s backyards

The interdisciplinarity of statistics plays out at Penn State in multiple ways. At the research level, the development of methods for collecting and analyzing data enables statistics faculty members to work on the cutting edge of academic disciplines.

Distinguished Professor of Statistics Jogesh Babu is one of the co-originators — along with Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics Eric Feigelson — of a recent resurgence of the field of astrostatistics. Professor of Statistics and Associate Dean for Graduate Education Aleksandra Slavkovic works with computer scientists in the field of data privacy, tackling how to share people’s information without compromising their privacy, and also collaborates with political and other scientists in “big data social science,” applying data-science methods to problems in the social sciences. Eberly Family Chair in Statistics Runze Li is a principal investigator of Penn State’s Methodology Center — a National Institutes of Health–funded group of researchers dedicated to advancing public health by improving experimental design and data analysis in the social, behavioral, and health sciences.

Faculty and students in the department also work closely with Penn State researchers in atmospheric science and meteorology, computer science and engineering, sociology, biology, and infectious disease dynamics. These examples are merely a subset of the many interdisciplinary ties currently maintained by the faculty members of the department.

Statistical reasoning applies to any field that uses data, which makes statistical expertise valuable to people from all across campus. The statistics department maintains an active Statistical Consulting Center (SCC), roughly as old as the department itself, whose mission is to provide statistical advice and support to Penn State researchers and external clients in industry and government. The SCC’s activities are overseen by faculty members Maggie Niu and Kirsten Eilertson, the latest two in a long line of departmental personnel who have led the Center.

And, of course, there is the educational mission of the department, which results in an enormous course load because of the vast number of disciplines at Penn State that rely on statistical techniques. In the past few years, Penn State has become a nationally recognized center for expertise in statistics education: Recent hires have included Dennis Pearl, the director of the Consortium for the Advancement of Undergraduate Education, and Kari Lock Morgan, co-author of an innovative textbook on introductory statistics that is the basis for a large proportion of 200-level statistics courses at Penn State.

The present and the future

Because of the explosion of interest in using new kinds of data to solve emerging problems in business and marketing; engineering and other sciences; sociology and the humanities; and so many other fields, statistics and the closely related disciplines of data science and machine learning are currently among the most exciting and dynamic of all disciplines. The field of statistics is evolving rapidly, and students who are well trained in modern statistical methods are in high demand and go on to have successful careers in industry, government, and academia. All the while, Penn State’s Department of Statistics continues to play a leading role in shaping that evolution and training those students, through its commitment to the mission of advancing statistics education and research.


The statistics department will celebrate its anniversary with a conference May 8–10, featuring panel discussions, research-focused talks, and a banquet at the Nittany Lion Inn. Read more about this event

The authors gratefully acknowledge the work of Bill Harkness, Tom Hettmansperger, Jim Rosenberger, and Dennis Lin, who have written extensive histories of statistics at Penn State.

Last Updated May 07, 2018